America doesn't have to depend on overseas sources for one of its most vital national needs. A move toward energy independence, aside from creating as many as 14 million new jobs, can help rebuild our nation's industrial base and provide one of the most stable and secure energy supplies in the world. Best of all, this new domestically produced energy can be both renewable and sustainable. Here are a half-dozen ideas on how to start:
1. Invest in new infrastructure to process alternative fuels.
There's little dispute over the feasibility of manufacturing liquid fuels from non-petroleum sources. Brazil is energy independent thanks, in no small part, to production of ethanol from sugarcane. Germany relied on coal during World War II. South Africa continues to tap coal and natural gas using the technology developed during years of isolation resulting from apartheid. The same technology is capable of producing fuels here in the United States -- and decades of research and the emergence of nanotechnology make energy produced this way much more affordable and economically competitive with oil-based fuels.
The technology is simple. Gasification, the process of taking an organic material (such as coal or biomass) and converting it to a mixture of gases, is the first step. There are already multiple competing commercial technologies and at least 20 plants in operation or under construction in the United States alone, mostly in the chemical industry. Using a separate but related technology, the gases manufactured using this process can be converted to form a wide range of fuels, including those already most familiar to Americans and compatible with the existing vehicle fleet and infrastructure: diesel, jet fuel, gasoline components, and ethanol.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, production of fuel in this manner can be economical and highly profitable. While the level of capital investment is indeed significant -- higher than a comparably-yielding oil refinery -- capital cost is spread over the long life of a plant, and savings show up in other places. Even with the cost of raw materials, energy inputs, and depreciation of the plant included, the break-even cost of producing fuel is around $1.25 per gallon, an amount notably lower than the current wholesale price of gasoline and other liquid fuels.
2. Use existing biomass to ease our transition away from petroleum use.
While virtually any organic material -- such as coal, natural gas and biomass -- can be used to manufacture fuel, biomass offers a distinct advantage: Its use makes the entire fuel cycle carbon-neutral. (A carbon-neutral fuel cycle means that no matter how much fuel we consume, there will be no net increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.)
The federal government has done significant research into determining available biomass resources. An April 2005 joint report from the Departments of Agriculture and Energy ascertained that annual national biomass potential "exceeds 1.3 billion dry tons annually -- the equivalent of more than one-third of the current demand for transportation fuels." Of that amount, more than 300 million tons per year are already available, currently unused or underused.
Biomass comes from numerous ready-made sources: residues generated by traditional logging operations and clearing of timberlands; forest thinning for purposes of fire suppression; processing wastes (including primary mills, secondary mills, and paper mills); urban wood residues (such as construction and demolition debris; yard waste; and discarded furniture, cabinets, pallets, containers and scrap wood. In combination, these stocks comprise a formidable supply of biomass that could be refined to supplant a portion of the petroleum the United States currently imports.
3. Grow "energy" crops.
Once we've exhausted the country's existing supply of biomass, we will need a consistent and sustainable source of additional biomass -- and that will require cultivating so-called "energy crops." The U.S. already produces ethanol from corn, making it the first crop grown here specifically for the production of energy. Unfortunately, the use of corn for ethanol has several distinct disadvantages, the most important of which is its relative land efficiency. To supplant all foreign oil using corn ethanol (currently the most popular non-petroleum fuel, by far), a total of 561 million acres would need to be planted in corn, an expanse that represents nearly 30 percent of the total land area of the contiguous 48 states.
The solution is finding alternative crops with much higher yields. There are quite a few varieties of grasses and a few types of trees that produce enough biomass material to make their growth substantially more land-efficient than corn. Two examples include switchgrass and arundo (a perennial grass). Their use also negates one main argument against using corn and other energy crops for fuel: that their use could diminish the world's food supply. As long as productive food-producing land is not taken out of cultivation, the addition of arundo and switchgrass to the agricultural scheme should have very little effect on food production.
4. Implement government intervention wisely.
Based on the capital cost of thermochemical fuel plants and the cost of establishing high-yield energy crops, the investment necessary to build infrastructure capable of supplanting all foreign oil could total $900 billion. The government is not going to fund this all at once, or ever, and experience has taught us that public expenditures aren't the ideal way to approach this kind of a challenge anyway. But encouraging -- and incentivizing -- private enterprise to make capital investments on this scale is the federal government's proper function.
There are many steps government can take to grow and protect an alternative-fuels industry. For starters, one immediate risk to such a nascent industry is a counter-attack from powerful predators, such as oil exporters and multinational oil companies. It is essential to the long-term survival of the industry that it be protected from a reactionary drop in prices.
One potential mechanism for protection is the establishment of a price floor for crude oil. The floor price could be set to ensure that domestic alternatives, including fuel produced from biomass, could compete with foreign oil even in a falling market. There are many ways to achieve this effect, but one straightforward approach would be an import tariff, which would help support not only alternative fuels but also the domestic oil and gas industries that have higher extraction costs than its overseas competitors.
5. Develop more fuel-efficient cars.
CAFÉ standards, which were implemented after the oil embargo in the 1970s, have proven remarkably effective in driving fuel efficiency. From 1978 to 1985, a period of continuous increases in fuel economy standards, U.S. oil usage steadily declined. The mid-1980s saw a significant and sustained period of low worldwide oil prices, however. Cheap oil meant a decreased interest among Americans and their political leaders of both major parties in continuing to push conservation measures, particularly fuel economy. CAFÉ standards became a largely forgotten method of promoting increased fuel efficiency.
It wasn't until December 2008 that the federal government finally increased them again, updating the law to require U.S. automakers and importers to increase the average fuel economy of their cars and light trucks to 35 miles per gallon by the year 2020. A Republican president hailed the new law as "a major step" toward reducing our dependence on oil and confronting global climate change while a Democratic speaker of the House proclaimed it "groundbreaking." Actually, it was a tepid and tardy response that left the U.S. lagging behind Europe and Japan -- and even some states, such as California, which have gone further on their own.
It's time for a serious new focus on developing more fuel-efficient vehicles. Incremental steps are important, and improved fuel efficiency is essential, but the next measures must be revolutionary innovations in vehicle design that will radically impact fuel demand. Hybrid and plug-in electric hybrid vehicles are some of the most promising options. The forthcoming Chevrolet Volt, the first of the mass-produced plug-in hybrids, is a step in the right direction.
6. Renew efforts to develop new nuclear power.
Nuclear plants have proven remarkably safe in the United States, and they offer power-generating capabilities at competitive prices without any discharge of greenhouse gases. For this reason and because power demands in the United States will continue to increase, the construction of new nuclear plants should be encouraged through legislative policies.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, John McCain called on the United States to commit to building 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030. Barack Obama, breaking with many at his own party, vowed at his nominating convention in Denver to "set a clear goal as president . . . [to] tap our natural-gas reserves, invest in clean coal technology and find ways to safely harness nuclear power." Both men were right.
Lewis Reynolds is the author of "America the Prisoner: The Implications of Foreign Oil Addiction and a Realistic Plan to End It" (Relevance Media, 2010). Further information can be found at: www.americatheprisoner.com.